Part III

Chapter I

Bret Harte

IT WAS sunset of a hot day at Washington. Even at that hour the broad avenues, which diverged from the Capitol like the rays of another sun, were fierce and glittering. The sterile distances between glowed more cruelly than ever, and pedestrians, keeping in the scant shade, hesitated on the curbstones before plunging into the Sahara-like waste of crossings. The city seemed deserted. Even that vast army of contractors, speculators, place-hunters, and lobbyists, which hung on the heels of the other army, and had turned this pacific camp of the nation into a battlefield of ignoble conflict and contention—more disastrous than the one to the South—had slunk into their holes in hotel back bedrooms, in shady barrooms, or in the negro quarters of Georgetown, as if the majestic, white-robed Goddess enthroned upon the dome of the Capitol had at last descended among them and was smiting to right and left with the flat and flash of her insufferable sword.

Into this stifling atmosphere of greed and corruption Clarence Brant stepped from the shadow of the War Department. For the last three weeks he had haunted its ante-rooms and audience-chambers, in the vain hope of righting himself before his superiors, who were content, without formulating charges against him, to keep him in this disgrace of inaction and the anxiety of suspense. Unable to ascertain the details of the accusation, and conscious of his own secret, he was debarred the last resort of demanding a court-martial, which he knew could only exonerate him by the exposure of the guilt of his wife, whom he still hoped had safely escaped. His division commander, in active operations in the field, had no time to help him at Washington. Elbowed aside by greedy contractors, forestalled by selfish politicians, and disdaining the ordinary method of influence, he had no friend to turn to. In his few years of campaigning he had lost his instinct of diplomacy, without acquiring a soldier’s bluntness.

The nearly level rays of the sun forced him at last to turn aside into one of the openings of a large building—a famous caravansary of that hotel-haunted capital, and he presently found himself in the luxurious bar-room, fragrant with mint, and cool with ice-slabs piled symmetrically on its marble counters. A few groups of men were seeking coolness at small tables with glasses before them and palm-leaf fans in their hands, but a larger and noisier assemblage was collected before the bar, where a man, collarless and in his shirt-sleeves, with his back to the counter, was pretentiously addressing them. Brant, who had moodily dropped into a chair in the corner, after ordering a cooling drink as an excuse for his temporary refuge from the stifling street, half-regretted his enforced participation in their conviviality. But a sudden lowering of the speaker’s voice into a note of gloomy significance seemed familiar to him. He glanced at him quickly, from the shadow of his corner. He was not mistaken—it was Jim Hooker!

For the first time in his life, Brant wished to evade him. In the days of his own prosperity his heart had always gone out towards this old companion of his boyhood; in his present humiliation his presence jarred upon him. He would have slipped away, but to do so he would have had to pass before the counter again, and Hooker, with the self-consciousness of a story-teller, had an eye on his audience. Brant, with a palm-leaf fan before his face, was obliged to listen.

“Yes, gentlemen,” said Hooker, examining his glass dramatically, “when a man’s been cooped up in a Rebel prison, with a death line before him that he’s obliged to cross every time he wants a square drink, it seems sort of like a dream of his boyhood to be standin’ here comf’ble before his liquor, alongside o’ white men once more. And when he knows he’s bin put to all that trouble jest to save the reputation of another man, and the secrets of a few high and mighty ones, it’s almost enough to make his liquor go agin him.” He stopped theatrically, seemed to choke emotionally over his brandy squash, but with a pause of dramatic determination finally dashed it down. “No, gentlemen,” he continued gloomily, “I don’t say what I’m back in Washington for—I don’t say what I’ve been sayin’ to myself when I’ve bin picking the weevils outer my biscuits in Libby Prison—but ef you don’t see some pretty big men in the War Department obliged to climb down in the next few days, my name ain’t Jim Hooker, of Hooker, Meacham & Co., Army Beef Contractors, and the man who saved the fight at Gray Oaks!”

The smile of satisfaction that went around his audience—an audience quick to seize the weakness of any performance—might have startled a vanity less oblivious than Hooker’s; but it only aroused Brant’s indignation and pity, and made his position still more intolerable. But Hooker, scornfully expectorating a thin stream of tobacco juice against the spittoon, remained for an instant gloomily silent.

“Tell us about the fight again,” said a smiling auditor.

Hooker looked around the room with a certain dark suspiciousness, and then, in an affected lower voice, which his theatrical experience made perfectly audible, went on:—

“It ain’t much to speak of, and if it wasn’t for the principle of the thing, I wouldn’t be talking. A man who’s seen Injin fightin’ don’t go much on this here West Point fightin’ by rule-of-three—but that ain’t here or there! Well, I’d bin out a-scoutin’—just to help the boys along, and I was sittin’ in my wagon about daybreak, when along comes a brigadier-general, and he looks into the wagon flap. I oughter to tell you first, gentlemen, that every minit he was expecting an attack—but he didn’t let on a hint of it to me. ‘How are you, Jim?’ said he. ‘How are you, general?’ said I. ‘Would you mind lendin’ me your coat and hat?’ says he. ‘I’ve got a little game here with our pickets, and I don’t want to be recognized.’ ‘Anything to oblige, general,’ said I, and with that I strips off my coat and hat, and he peels and puts them on. ‘Nearly the same figure, Jim,’ he says, lookin’ at me, ‘suppose you try on my things and see.’ With that he hands me his coat—full uniform, by G-d!—with the little gold cords and laces and the epaulettes with a star, and I puts it on—quite innocent-like. And then he says, handin’ me his sword and belt, ‘Same inches round the waist, I reckon,’ and I puts that on too. ‘You may as well keep ’em on till I come back,’ says he, ‘for it’s mighty damp and malarious at this time around the swamp.’ And with that he lights out. Well, gentlemen, I hadn’t sat there five minutes before Bang! bang! rattle! rattle! kershiz! and I hears a yell. I steps out of the wagon; everything’s quite dark, but the rattle goes on. Then along trots an orderly, leadin’ a horse. ‘Mount, general,’ he says, ‘we’re attacked—the rear-guard’s on us!’”

He paused, looked round his audience, and then in a lower voice, said darkly,—

“I ain’t a fool, an’ in that minute a man’s brain works at high pressure, and I saw it all! I saw the little game of the brigadier to skunk away in my clothes and leave me to be captured in his. But I ain’t a dog neither, and I mounted that horse, gentlemen, and lit out to where the men were formin’! I didn’t dare to speak, lest they should know me, but I waved my sword, and by G-d! they followed me! And the next minit we was in the thick of it. I had my hat as full of holes as that ice strainer; I had a dozen bullets through my coat, the fringe of my epaulettes was shot away, but I kept the boys at their work—and we stopped ’em! Stopped ’em, gentlemen, until we heard the bugles of the rest of our division, that all this time had been rolling that blasted rear-guard over on us! And it saved the fight; but the next minute the Johnny Rebs made a last dash and cut me off—and there I was—by G-d, a prisoner! Me that had saved the fight!”

A ripple of ironical applause went round as Hooker gloomily drained his glass, and then held up his hand in scornful deprecation.

“I said I was a prisoner, gentlemen,” he went on bitterly; “but that ain’t all! I asked to see Johnston, told him what I had done, and demanded to be exchanged for a general officer. He said, ‘You be d——d.’ I then sent word to the division commander-in-chief, and told him how I had saved Gray Oaks when his brigadier ran away, and he said, ‘You be d——d.’ I’ve bin ‘You be d——d’ from the lowest non-com. to the commander-in-chief, and when I was at last exchanged, I was exchanged, gentlemen, for two mules and a broken wagon. But I’m here, gentlemen—as I was thar!”

“Why don’t you see the President about it?” asked a bystander, in affected commiseration.

Mr. Hooker stared contemptuously at the suggestion, and expectorated his scornful dissent.

“Not much!” he said. “But I’m going to see the man that carries him and his Cabinet in his breeches-pocket—Senator Boompointer.”

“Boompointer’s a big man,” continued his auditor doubtfully. “Do you know him?”

“Know him?” Mr. Hooker laughed a bitter, sardonic laugh. “Well, gentlemen, I ain’t the kind o’ man to go in for family influence; but,” he added, with gloomy elevation, “considering he’s an intimate relation of mine, by marriage, I should say I did.”

Brant heard no more; the facing around of his old companion towards the bar gave him that opportunity of escaping he had been waiting for. The defection of Hooker and his peculiar inventions were too characteristic of him to excite surprise, and, although they no longer awakened his good-humored tolerance, they were powerless to affect him in his greater trouble. Only one thing he learned—that Hooker knew nothing of his wife being in camp as a spy—the incident would have been too tempting to have escaped his dramatic embellishment. And the allusion to Senator Boompointer, monstrous as it seemed in Hooker’s mouth, gave him a grim temptation. He had heard of Boompointer’s wonderful power; he believed that Susy would and could help him—Clarence—whether she did or did not help Hooker. But the next moment he dismissed the idea, with a flushing cheek. How low had he already sunk, even to think of it!

It had been once or twice in his mind to seek the President, and, under a promise of secrecy, reveal a part of his story. He had heard many anecdotes of his goodness of heart and generous tolerance of all things, but with this was joined—so said contemporaneous history—a flippancy of speech and a brutality of directness from which Clarence’s sensibility shrank. Would he see anything in his wife but a common spy on his army; would he see anything in him but the weak victim, like many others, of a scheming woman? Stories current in camp and Congress of the way that this grim humorist had, with an apposite anecdote or a rugged illustration, brushed away the most delicate sentiment or the subtlest poetry, even as he had exposed the sham of Puritanic morality or of Epicurean ethics. Brant had even solicited an audience, but had retired awkwardly, and with his confidence unspoken, before the dark, humorous eyes, that seemed almost too tolerant of his grievance. He had been to levees, and his heart had sunk equally before the vulgar crowd, who seemed to regard this man as their own buffoon, and the pompousness of position, learning and dignity, which he seemed to delight to shake and disturb.

One afternoon, a few days later, in sheer listlessness of purpose, he found himself again at the White House. The President was giving audience to a deputation of fanatics, who, with a pathetic simplicity almost equal to his own pathetic tolerance, were urging upon this ruler of millions the policy of an insignificant score, and Brant listened to his patient, practical response of facts and logic, clothed in simple but sinewy English, up to the inevitable climax of humorous illustration, which the young brigadier could now see was necessary to relieve the grimness of his refusal. For the first time Brant felt the courage to address him, and resolved to wait until the deputation retired. As they left the gallery he lingered in the ante-room for the President to appear. But, as he did not come, afraid of losing his chances, he returned to the gallery. Alone in his privacy and shadow, the man he had just left was standing by a column, in motionless abstraction, looking over the distant garden. But the kindly, humorous face was almost tragic with an intensity of weariness! Every line of those strong, rustic features was relaxed under a burden which even the long, lank, angular figure—overgrown and unfinished as his own West—seemed to be distorted in its efforts to adjust itself to; while the dark, deep-set eyes were abstracted with the vague prescience of the prophet and the martyr. Shocked at that sudden change, Brant felt his cheek burn with shame. And he was about to break upon that wearied man’s unbending; he was about to add his petty burden to the shoulders of this Western Atlas. He drew back silently, and descended the stairs.

But before he had left the house, while mingling with the crowd in one of the larger rooms, he saw the President reappear beside an important, prosperous-looking figure, on whom the kindly giant was now smiling with humorous toleration. He noticed the divided attention of the crowd; the name of Senator Boompointer was upon every lip; he was nearly face to face with that famous dispenser of place and preferment—this second husband of Susy! An indescribable feeling—half cynical, half fateful—came over him. He would not have been surprised to see Jim Hooker join the throng, which now seemed to him to even dwarf the lonely central figure that had so lately touched him! He wanted to escape it all!

But his fate brought him to the entrance at the same moment that Boompointer was leaving it, and that distinguished man brushed hastily by him as a gorgeous carriage, drawn by two spirited horses, and driven by a resplendent negro coachman, dashed up. It was the Boompointer carriage.

A fashionably-dressed, pretty woman, who, in style, bearing, opulent contentment, and ingenuous self-consciousness, was in perfect keeping with the slight ostentation of the equipage, was its only occupant. As Boompointer stepped into the vehicle, her blue eyes fell for an instant on Brant. A happy, childlike pink flush came into her cheeks, and a violet ray of recognition and mischief darted from her eyes to his. For it was Susy.

Clarence - Contents    |     Part III - Chapter II

Back    |    Words Home    |    Bret Harte Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback